Do you know why chefs really wear those bulky white jackets?

"They can hide how overweight you are," jokes Cooking Light executive chef Billy Strynkowski.

Cooking Light, the popular food magazine, stresses fitness and low-fat recipes, but until two years ago, its chef "was very overweight. And I had never exercised in my life," admits Strynkowski.

Strynkowski, who is 6 feet tall, says he weighed 260 pounds, "which I camouflaged with my chef's jacket." A 1983 graduate of the culinary school at Johnson & Wales University, Strynkowski was hired by Cooking Light four years ago to write about food and to conduct the magazine's supper club events across the country.

Working for the magazine had an effect on him, the chef says. "I didn't want to get up in front of people and lie to them. I decided to do something to change my habits."

He started slowly -- very slowly, he says with a laugh.

"Remember, I had never exercised. My first day, I jogged between telephone polls. I would tell myself, 'Just jog to the next pole.' Then I would walk to the pole after that, and then jog to the next one. I probably didn't even do a quarter of a mile that day."

But he kept at it, exercising more and changing how he ate. Eventually he lost 60 pounds.

"I did it by eating correctly -- complex carbs for breakfast, a salad-type entree for lunch, and protein, no starch, for dinner." His worst habit? "Eating in front of the television at night. That was my killer," he says.

"I'm also one of those people who can't just eat one or two. I want to eat the whole bag. So what I do is, I put the bag away where I can't see it and drink a bottle of water instead," he adds.

These days Strynkowski, 43, runs 20 miles a week and cycles about 1,500 miles a year. He plays Frisbee and baseball with his kids, and he swims. "And I walk up the stairs instead of taking the elevator at work."

The experience has made him more sympathetic to people trying to change their eating and fitness habits. "If I can do it, you guys can do it," he tells readers.

He also suggests easy ways cooks can add flavor to recipes without adding fat. Some of his tips:

* Flavored mustards. "They add a ton of flavor, they have no fat and they stand up well in cooking." Use them to coat meat or in sauces.

* White balsamic vinegar. "It's becoming very popular because it doesn't turn things dark and adds lots of flavor. You can roast with it or use it in cold dishes."

* Miso. "Four years ago, people didn't know what it was. Now they're marinating fish in miso paste, and lots of supermarkets carry it."

* Dry rubs. "Lots of flavor, no fat, great for grilled meat or fish."

* Mint. "There are so many kinds out there: spearmint, chocolate, orange, peppermint and hybrids. They really pack a punch."

-- Candy Sagon

Billy Strynkowski, executive chef of Cooking Light, lost 60 pounds to better fit into his job.